Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Procrastinated papers have more problems with evidence

While mechanical errors didn't prove any more of a problem for procrastinators than their non-procrastinating peers, the same is not true for problems using evidence. Under evidence problems I'm including problems integrating quotations, unsupported claims, and using the wrong kind of evidence (such as quoting others' opinions to stand in as the writer's conclusion). I do not include citation errors. Since these were freshman research papers, most of the evidence was of the sort found in books and websites, but I count examples under evidence as well.

Both classes had procrastinators in the fourth quartile for rate of errors in use of evidence. That's .37 and .13 errors per 100 words for the classes overall but .67 and 1.0 for procrastinators. Looking over the kinds of errors, nothing jumps out as being more of a problem for procrastinators than for the rest of the classes. The distribution of kinds of evidence errors looks to be about the same.

I was a little surprised after finding little difference in terms of length and mechanical errors to find a difference in use of evidence. One explanation that jumps out at me is the possibility that no one--procrastinator or not--is effectively proofreading her paper. I should look back over the questionnaires to see if procrastinators were any more or less likely to report proofreading.

One thing that separates mechanical errors from use of evidence is the expectation of prior knowledge in first year composition. While the classes probably had some instructions in avoiding comma splices, I'm sure if I asked the instructors they'd confirm that more class time was spent on research and quotation integration. So why might non-procrastinators do better here? Well, I'm tempted to think that non-procrastinators were more likely to actually be in class. I don't have any data on attendance, so this is just speculation. But if a student procrastinates because they don't want to work on the assignment, they might just skip class for similar reasons, missing out on important lessons. On the other hand, students with no free time (such as those working full time) may not be keeping up studying or may miss class for other reasons. So I can imagine that students who wait until the last minute to write their papers might also be students who miss out on lessons. But that may be a reach.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Why would procrastination reduce error?

As I said below, my data indicate a slightly lower rate of error in procrastinated papers than otherwise. It'd be a bit of a leap to conclude without more research that procrastination helps. But lets say it did turn out that waiting to the last minute resulted in writing with fewer errors. What might the reasons be?

Usually when students explain that they prefer to procrastinate, they allude to creative energy of some kind that only arrives as the deadline looms. I can't recall a student ever telling me they made less errors that way, but such a situation isn't entirely unimaginable. In my imagination, the student thrives on the stress of needing to put a paper together in a short amount of time and actually becomes more productive. Although this is possible, I'm fairly skeptical. Sometimes I've thought I became productive when I procrastinated and then found a bunch of performance errors circled by my professors.

Students who struggle more with cognitive errors (a term I'm not in love with) may be a different matter. Since they misunderstand the rules of grammar, they can actually make their papers more error-filled the more they work at them. But since my study was of freshman composition classes and not basic writers, this seems unlikely to be the main explanation.

Maybe fewer errors isn't even a good thing. People screw up when they push the boundaries of their comfort zone. Freshman papers often contain errors that simply come from imitating a style they haven't yet mastered. Helping students to master the style they're already going for is a lot easier than trying to get students to stop writing sentences that sound like they could follow "See Spot run." Students who think that grammatical errors are what separates good and bad writing may have perfect grammar but still write bad papers.

I need to go back to the papers that were procrastinated on and determine what kinds of errors they contain and whether the lower rate of error might have been caused by playing it safe and not attempting anything more complex than a compound subject.

Procrastination Reduces Errors?

As it turns out, of the students in the three classes I've studied, the procrastinators didn't write particularly worse papers. At least not by the two indicators I've looked at so far.

One might think that waiting to the last minute to start a research paper would result in it being too short. Nope. There was more difference in length from one class to another than between procrastinators and non-procrastinators. One of the procrastinators actually wrote the longest paper in his class. None of them wrote the shortest. Procrastination has no clear consequence on paper length.

It would also seem reasonable to expect that procrastinated papers would contain more errors, for two reasons. One, waiting too long to start the paper may leave the writer without time to proofread. This should leave evidence of "performance errors"--the kinds of mistakes we all make when we don't watch ourselves. Two, students who avoid the task of writing may well be doing so because they believe they are bad at it. These students might leave evidence of "cognitive errors"--the kinds of mistakes we make when we are confused about the rules. These mistakes will simply not be caught by self-proofreading and can actually be made worse (since the proofreading is done by the student's wrong impression of the actual rules).

But no, procrastinators don't make more errors. Of both classes with procrastinated papers, the error rate was lower with procrastinators. The procrastinators in one class had an error rate of .5 errors per 100 words. The class average (median) was .67--slightly higher. In the other class, procrastinators had an error rate of .9 errors per 100 words. That classes averaged 1.7.

Here again the difference between classes is stronger than the difference between procrastinators and students as a whole. Procrastination doesn't increase errors, but the numbers are awfully close (.5 to .67 and .9 to 1.7) with a limited amount of data (less than fifty students) to jump to the conclusion that it helps.